Category Archives: Principles

Will the Future of Theological Education Include Today’s Seminaries?

The Future of Theological Education

[first published November 10, 2010 on]

Or will someone else meet the educational goals of African Americans, Latino/as, Asians, and women?

Education is never neutral; it is always done with a particular goal in mind, although some forms are more subconscious and are actually forms of socialization.  The danger is in assuming or positioning any educational program as neutral, universal, or objective.

At best, we as educators can be honest about our intentions, biases, and goals.  In theological education the goal is to shape leaders to serve the church.  But, for what purpose, in which leadership positions, for which communities, and with what outcomes or expectations?  Clarity about what is or is not being done can help us to realize that our programs are not intended for all ministers or all ministry contexts.

That being said, we need to acknowledge that most seminaries were designed to serve European male clergy who were called to local congregations. These leaders were called to serve members who were committed to particular parish or denomination.  The goal was to prepare church leaders for the profession of ministry and to usually work in predominantly white congregations.  And, in most cases, the goal was to maintain these homogeneous memberships.

But today, many years later, seminaries have retained their educational goals, perspectives, and approaches even though their students, denominations, churches, and community contexts have changed.  The leadership roles and contexts in which  students serve have become especially diverse and complex.  And, beyond those actually attending seminaries, the pool of ministerial leaders who desire and need theological education is far greater than those who actually reach theseminary doors.  Once reached, ministers of color and women often find the seminary to be a strange and foreign land, one that provides traditional theological references but no real direction or relevance for their more diverse and urban ministry contexts.

In pondering the question “What is the Future of Theological Education,” I think about how theology and its leaders are being shaped by today’s cultural context and the social and religious needs of the people they serve.  It is a social context that is globally formed and intricately connected to the multicultural and economic inequalities of our world economy.

Unfortunately, it is a reality that too many seminaries, churches, and communities have not embraced or acknowledged.  Yet our global reality is reflected daily by the expansive reach of the internet, Facebook, our interconnected financial markets, and the telephone call centers of one country serving the needs of customers and companies in other country.  Many mainline congregations are still looking for young, white, American-born, male pastoral leaders (and their wives) to help support and build the church and its ministries.

In tough economic times, institutions become isolated and self-focused, particularly when they are focused on budget shortfalls and concerns about self-survival.  It is in these times that schools become more entrenched and committed to continue to do what they do, how they do it, for whom they see as their principal customers. This happens to churches too.  Like the company that cuts marketing and advertising to “SAVE” money, but ends up cutting off its future revenue by reducing its best means of attracting new customers, seminaries who become less open to new student markets will miss opportunities to expand and change theological education.  Paying attention to these diverse student markets will also improve the educational experience for all students and professors, since these mature adult students, many of whom have been in ministry for years, bring their experiential knowledge and passion with them.

Cynthia Milsap

Theological education will exist with or without seminaries.

For years African American and Latino pastors have created their own forms, foci, and paths to theological education and leadership development.  Historically discriminated against and excluded from having access to higher education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, these leaders have developed their own educational programs and classes that recognize their talents, sharpen their skills, and equip them to serve their communities.  The independent denominations established by these cultural groups have developed their own systems of qualifying, preparing, and educating leaders.  These programs also begin by valuing their cultural experiences, histories, and perspectives.  They also place their experiences at the center of theological reflection and not at the margins or as an optional add-on course.

Having a culturally safe space to study, acknowledge, and affirm one’s own cultural  identity and history is central to the process of recovering the voices and leadership contributions of  persons who have been marginalized, isolated, devalued, omitted, and silenced the academy and society at-large.  If seminaries do not consciously seek to create these spaces, students will create them outside of traditional seminary walls.

And, in an age that too many are rushing to call to “Post-racial” racial society, most seminarians have very few professors of color and do not seem to be talking steps to address this shortcoming.  How can we be preparing students for multicultural world if they have never had a non-white professor?  This problem is even more troubling when you see the rapidly growing numbers of Latino/as (according to the U.S. Census) and yet theological schools are not planning for their entrance into seminaries as students or to nurture them as future professors.  Perhaps it is because seminaries are still focused on and longing for the days when their campuses where dominated by single, unattached male students who were not encumbered with families and financial responsibilities. But the reality is that today, second-career, adult students dominate seminary classrooms.  These adult students come to seminary with years of ministry experience wanting more than a “one-size fits all” program, but too often that has been the only size offered.

What seminaries of the future must do

Seminaries who want to be a part of the future of theological education must be willing to listen and respond to students who have different ministry roles, goals, contexts, and learning needs.  They must be willing to “create” academic and support programs to meet these cultural needs and not expect that the who of “admissions” is the only change that is needed.  Seminaries of the future must shift from being single culture educational entities to becoming multicultural centers of theological exploration and learning.  They must connect the theological education and leadership development programs of the seminary with the real world challenges, gifts, and community contexts of today’s multicultural, global urban world.  Recent statistics indicate that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas.

Seminaries must look introspectively and ask, Why are we not doing more to cultivate future scholars among alumni from the culturally diverse students? How can we include members of these groups in the planning process?  Why do many persons from non-white cultural groups feel that seminaries are not welcoming, relevant, or affirming places for them to be?  And most of all, why are seminaries not researching and teaching about the successful models of church growth, outreach ministries, and culture-based ministry practiced by these grassroots leaders? Some very successful pastors have not been educated in traditional seminaries, but they have received a theological education which has incorporated experiences from life, mentors, peers, and alternative (meaning different and not less-than) educational programs.  How can the seminary experience be more integrative of these sources of learning and theological reflection?

CAATS graduation 2008

2008 CAATS Graduation

Culture-specific theological education programs

SCUPE is modeling a culturally-specific, integrative model of theological education for the urban context in its ALTE (Advanced

Latino/a Theological Education), Center for African American Theological Studies, and Nurturing the Call programs.  SCUPE, the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, is based in Chicago and has been offering theological education programs that respond to changing urban community contexts since 1976.  For the past five years, SCUPE has more intentionally worked with various seminary and community partners to meet the needs of specific cultural groups, Latino/as and African Americans, who have not had the same access to traditional theological education.  These culturally specific programs serve the Latino/a and African American communities, respectively, and offer certificate, Masters level courses, and Master of Divinity degrees.  These programs were created by pastors and seminary faculty who were members of these ethnic groups.  These community pastors and faculty were deeply passionate about making a pathway to theological education accessible to ministers and church leaders in their communities.  Consequently, with community support, these programs are growing and collectively serve more than 200 pastors and church leaders annually.

It is important for any serious effort to meet culture-specific needs to be led by persons from the ethnic groups that you are seeking to serve.  Seeking to add a Spanish-speaking professor who is teaching from a Eurocentric perspective, or expecting persons with family commitments to conform to daytime class hours are just two examples of what most seminaries do incorrectly.  The shift that is necessary is to culturally, intellectually, and physically base these programs in the communities of the students who are being served.  For adult students who are working and going to school, evening and weekend classes have worked best.  Learning in environments where students see and learn from professors who are from their own ethnic group gives these students a source of cultural affirmation and academic mentoring, which releases and shapes their theological voices.

For Latino/a students, being able to listen, read, and speak in Spanish has been liberating  for students for whom it is their first language and mind-expanding for those who are second-generation.

The classes for these groups are held in churches or community sites located in the neighborhoods of the ethnic groups they serve.  The theological perspectives, textbooks, and discussions place their intellectual and cultural traditions at the center of study and the concerns of their communities at the core of their theological reflection.  Moving from the margin to the center of theological education, the cohort model of creating a collaborative, support learning environment is key to developing leaders who will also be collaborative in their ministries.

Women are also another very large cultural group which seminaries have not adequately recognized or retooled their programs to address.  Many women are listening to and learning about male models for preaching and leading.  They are taught male perspectives about what it means to do ministry in the church as pastor.  Pastoring for women is inherently different.  The congregation’s acceptance of women varies based on denomination, church tradition, and the pastor’s own gifts and background.  Women bring their own leadership perspectives, styles, and challenges, vision and gifts.  Seminaries have left out the images, voices, and contexts of female pastors.

More African American and Latino/a clergy are seeking formal seminary education as more educated members seek clergy with Masters and Doctorate degrees.

Advanced Latino/a Theological Education

To secure formal higher formal education, these leaders look to predominantly white seminaries or divinity schools.  Seminaries seeking to recruit these church leaders must be willing to look at their curriculum and teaching methodology and its relevance for these more diverse pastoral leaders.  Pastors serving communities of color do not have the option of being involved in urban ministry.  Their ministries and congregations are urban and so to serve their members is to serve their communities.  A curriculum which does not take this into account, does not prepare pastors for ministry in their “real” world.  Responsive seminaries must link their theological education programs to the leadership roles, social histories, and cultural and global contexts of these students.  They must be open to partnerships and dialogue with the students and communities which they have the potential to serve.

So the question remains, Will seminaries respond to where theological education is going? Or will they be left behind wondering where all the students–which they ignored– have gone?  For if today’s seminaries do not serve our multicultural communities,  someone else will.

– Cynthia Milsap

Hope, Imagination and Prophetic Preaching

The Art of Prophetic Preaching in the Urban ContextHow can hope transform the lives of individuals and communities?

What does it mean to be prophetic?

Where is imagination essential in incarnating the gospel?

Paulo FreireIn the newest episode of the SCUPE Congress podcast we delve into the human spiritual need for hope and the role of imagination in conveying the Kingdom of God. We talk with SCUPE’s President Emeritus and Founding Director Dave Frenchak, on the bustling streets of Chicago, about fostering the rich tradition of prophetic preaching in our lives and in our current day and age.

Highlights include: a preached introduction by Yvonne Delk, excerpts of Dave and Otis Moss III teaching their preaching class, a look at the work of Brazilian educator and pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire, and a nice smattering of sirens and cars noises!

Also, learn about the various other opportunities SCUPE offers to those interested in urban ministry, seminary education, and a model of doing theology that goes beyond classical paradigms that focus solely on learning about theology.

Available here:SCUPE Podcast Library

Jim Wallis on Building Faith-based Social Movements

Jim Wallis speaks at 2006 CongressI’ve been going through some of the old recordings from the past plenary speakers at Congress on Urban Ministry.  As we approach these mid-term elections in a frenzy of political polarization, attack ads, and electioneering I was struck by the relevance of this plenary Jim Wallis did back in 2006.

Jim WallisJim Wallis is an author and the founder/editor of Sojourners.  He has been a crucial voice for American Christianity that crosses the normal, hard and fast, boundaries of left and right, liberal and conservative.

Listen here or below as Jim Wallis  speaks at the 2006 Congress about moving from partisan politics (and partisan religion) towards creating and nurturing a movement for social justice based on faith and hope.

One of the highlights for me is near the middle where, for a couple minutes, he hits upon this idea that the Beloved Community must be built up by moving from ministry to models to movement.  Wallis gives credit to ministries (saying at one point that if everyone in this room stopped their ministry there would be many cities that would literally stumble) but also pushes the Congress to move past ministry and even models that help extend ministry toward movements that bring ministry to bear upon systems and structures of injustice.

Jim Wallis at 2006 CongressI wish Jim would have pressed a bit harder on this as I think many socially mindful/active Christians (Jim Wallis included) are still searching for the way to build a movement.  The civil rights movement is an extraordinary exemplar but, times have changed and I would contend that the powers that benefit from the status quo have successfully developed methods to diffuse social movements created with familiar paradigms.  We must create a new paradigm of movement and then allow it to adapt.  I would contend that the best way to do this is by listening and being responsive to the Spirit.

If you are reading this from a Chicagoland location you might be interested to know that Jim Wallis will be participating in an informal debate out at Wheaton College on this coming Thursday.  He will engage Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in an informal debate: “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?”.  Here are the details:

Thursday, October 28th – 2010
7pm at Edman Chapel
Debate to be moderated by Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson.

More info here.

Educating for Hope

What is an effective urban ministry leader?  To answer that question we must begin with a working definition of leadership.  The one outstanding characteristic that is found in all materials about leadership is that leadership is always about change.  At SCUPE we define effective urban ministry leadership as “when one assumes responsibility for transforming a reality to the glory of God”, emphasizing that leadership is always about change.

Such leadership requires three things:

  • a solid grasp of the existing reality with all of its political, social and cultural complexities and investments,
  • a vision of an alternative reality and three
  • a strategy of how to move from the existing reality to the alternative reality.

When all three things are present there is hope and hope is what education is all about.

Dave Frenchak

The first step in the process is often the hardest.  It means putting to one side all of our stereotypes, prejudices, opinions, attitudes and all those things we have learned from culture and school that reinforce negativity regarding those we do not know.  This is necessary because an important ingredient in contextual theological education is empathy and negative perceptions based on limited experience block empathy.  Here is the hard reality for those of us who planned and worked hard to be comfortable in life.  If we are serious about being effective leaders in ministry in the city we will need to leave are places of comfort, wherever that is, and willingly move to situations, circumstance and places where we will be not be recognized or acknowledged for who we are.  We will have to have sufficient faith to allow ourselves to be steeped in a culture where we are the minority. The incarnation is the model.

I repeatedly tell seminary students that they are first and foremost practicing theologians and their task is to do theology both from the pulpit and in the streets.  Theology cannot be done without the second aspect of transformative leadership, vision.

John Kinney

Foundational and essential to the challenge of doing theology in the city is the exercise of prophetic imagination. Imagination is a gift from God given to every human being.  It is one of the delightful things that separate us from the rest of creation.  We humans have the capacity to see a reality beyond the reality that is immediately before us. Unfortunately, however, for many, if not most, of us our imaginations have been sorely neglected and dulled.

Prophetic imagination is sanctified imagination, imagination that is set aside to see first and foremost, what a place would look like if it glorified God.  When one is captured by prophetic imagination you can be sure change is coming. When one is captured by a vision about what a place would look like if it glorified God the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against such a vision.

Jose D. Rodriguez

The third and critical practice of doing theology is developing a strategy and plan to move from the existing reality to the prophetic vision.  This is the ultimate task of the contextual theologian the unveiling of hope.  It is hope, not grounded in fantasy, but grounded in our understanding of God and God’s will for the city.  As theologians it requires us we to see a reality beyond the reality that is immediately visible, God’s reality.

Hope is our grounding place for urban ministry.  As theologians, it is hope that informs the way we look at communities.  At SCUPE, therefore, we do not focus on ministry based on meeting community needs but rather ministry based on the spiritual, material and personal resources existing in that community.  Only then are we fulfilling our calling to educate for hope.

– Dave Frenchak

SCUPE weekend

Peacemaking Insight #2 – James A. Forbes

A special invitation from Rev. Forbes as he sums up the Congress and how it will play a role in the path of peace:


– Pastor Emeritus from the Riverside Church in New York and President and Founder of the Healing of the Nations Foundation James A. Forbes

Correction: the Congress dates are March 1-4, 2011

Peacemaking Insight #1 – Dave Frenchak

At the last meeting of the National Planning Committee we had the chance to talk individually with a few of the wonderful minds gathered around that table.  While these videos offer just a slice of the wisdom and experience being leveled at these meetings towards moving us away from a culture of violence through peacemaking, they pack quite a punch.

Dave Frenchak speaks in this video about the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry and the tools and equipping that the gathering will provide to those whose ministries will actively create peace.

Dave Frenchak - Peacemaking Insight I

Dave Frenchak - Peacemaking Insight I

“My best hope is that this event is going to be a disruptive event.  That we will be able, through this event, to disrupt the routines in the culture that cause violence… That we will be able to disrupt the roles that different people play in this culture of violence… the roles that we ourselves play, unwittingly, that promotes a culture of violence… And that we will be able to disrupt the rules, both spoken and unspoken, known and unknown, that all of us obey which actually feed the culture of violence.

So that we can begin thinking out of a different framework: not a culture of violence but a culture of making peace.”

Social Justice and Community Development

A partnership between SCUPE and Loyola University
combines Social Justice and Community Development
into one graduate level program (MASJCD).  Susan Rans writes
about how SJ and CD are not unusual bedfellows.

Dr. Mary Nelson' s Restoring Urban Communities Course

Many current and incoming students have asked for a description of the differences between the Social Justice and Community Development tracks of the MASJCD.  In the past, I have answered this question in a kind of shorthand:

Social Justice ‘thinks globally”; Community Development “acts locally”.  Here, I will attempt to put more meat on those bones.

The biggest idea behind the creation of the MASJCD was to join the theoretical and theological study of social justice to a place-based practice and policy approach to change in urban communities.  While the study of social justice leads toward action, the study of community development provides effective and proven tools for action.  So, another formulation might be that the study of social justice reveals why we must act and the study of community development shows what we can do.

It can also be said that community development is a form of social justice.  Our religious traditions speak clearly about the injustices of poverty, of war and of oppression of the powerless.  Answering this call often leads students to involvement in justice issues like eliminating poverty and hunger, ending wars, empowering women or welcoming immigrants.  Community development–building strong and liberating communities in which the economy is available to all, in which every member is a valued contributor, and in which access to health care, education and secure housing is a mandate–fulfills the social justice vision.

Community development also concerns itself with systems—their analysis and the ways in which they must change to become equitable and sustainable.  Understanding housing policy and the details of housing production are essential to changing the housing system.  Knowing the economics and politics of food production is necessary to work to provide local communities with access to healthy food.  As one Chicago community developer often says, “We need to discover ways to make big systems work for small places.”  Studying community development leads to that discovery.

In the end, an argument can be made that significant knowledge of both areas is essential to real and lasting change, and that’s why there is an MASJCD.  And toward that end, we do not require students to declare a track until one full-time semester has passed (one year for part-time students).  And we highly recommend that students take courses in both tracks early in their studies and even after they have chosen a track—a sort of major/minor arrangement.  The best mix of theory and practice, of global issues and local systems will produce to the best agents of social change—the goal of our program.

For more info and discussion of the program, feel free to contact me.

-Susan Rans
MASJCD Graduate Program Director